The Death of Fred Moore

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

Happy Anniversary! This column marks 12 years of continuous uninterrupted Wednesday columns written by me for MousePlanet. That is over 600 weekly columns. It doesn't include the extra columns I have written over the decade, primarily obituaries of Disney people who I knew.

My first column appeared May 31, 2006 under the name of Wade Sampson. I was working at Walt Disney World and had received permission from Disney legal in California that I could write a column as long as I confined myself to Disney history (no proprietary or current information), made it clear I was not representing Disney and that my writing did not prevent me from my job responsibilities.

However, my manager at Disney University hated that I received any attention as a Disney historian and that other departments, including Animation and Imagineering, were always requesting my knowledge and services on my time off (for which they willingly paid overtime).

She made my life a living hell in many ways from scheduling, occasionally delaying payment of my checks by several days, undercutting my annual evaluations, and more, so I wrote under a pseudonym to try to give myself a little protection.

In 1971, a novel was released titled The Rat Factory by J.M. Ryan. This comedic tale is a colorful account of a young artist named Ambrose who works at the Sampson Studios in Hollywood in the 1930s and his various exaggerated struggles.

The studio produced popular animated cartoon characters including Ricky Rat, Dizzy Duck, and Halfwit Hog. These well-beloved icons were the creation of the fictional Wade Sampson, a thinly-veiled and often unflattering surrogate for Walt Disney. So as an inside joke, I took the name.

The author, J.M. Ryan, was in fact a pseudonym, as well. The novel was written by John Richard McDermott, who worked as an artist at the Disney Studios on Hyperion Avenue in the 1930s. Intertwined in an improbable storyline were McDermott's memories and perspectives of working at the Disney Hyperion Studio.

When my manager's dream came true with mandatory downsizing at WDW in 2009, she laid me off along with some others in her department that she disliked, and I reverted to using my real name. I maintain a good relationship with the Disney Company as an approved outside vendor and contractor, and still do occasional work, usually as a writer.

It was never MousePlanet policy to ever allow pseudonyms (and, in truth, it was the worst-kept secret in Disney fandom with Dave Smith instantly recognizing the reference and the true identity), but they understood my position and made an exception in my case. I am very appreciative of being allowed to write about all things related to Disney history from the parks to comics to people to animation and more.

Even when there were personal, medical or financial problems in my life I made sure that readers always had a column on Disney history every Wednesday for over a decade because I felt I had made a commitment that might be appreciated.

I wanted a special column to mark the occasion and this is one that I have worked on for quite some time about one of my favorite Disney artists.

When a friend couldn't make a scheduled appointment to interview with Walt Disney because of a toothache, 19-year-old Fred Moore seized the opportunity and went in his place with sketches done on discarded shirt cardboard. With no formal art training except for a few night classes he earned in exchange for janitorial work at Chouinard Art Institute, Moore was a natural animator and was hired immediately.

A caricature of Fred Moore appeared in the Disney short Nifty Nineties.

His influence on Disney animation and the creation of characters with "appeal" cannot be over-estimated. Ward Kimball was one of his friends and strongest supporters and the two are caricatured as "Fred & Ward, Two Clever Boys From Illinois" vaudeville act in the 1941 Disney short Nifty Nineties. Fred and Ward actually supply their own voices for the sequence.

Born Robert Fred Moore on September 7, 1911, he attended Polytechnic High School in Los Angeles. Moore is one of the Disney animators credited with creating "personality animation" evident in his work on the iconic Disney short Three Little Pigs (1933), as well as the dwarfs in the animated feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), and, perhaps, most memorably, in his re-design of Mickey Mouse.

He gave Mickey the pear-shaped body, jowls, pupils in his eyes and more that allowed the character to really convey emotion and be more flexible in his movements.

Floyd Gottfredson, who drew the Mickey Mouse comic strip for decades, told me in a 1979 interview: "Fred Moore was the fellow who really streamlined the mouse and some of the other characters. To me, the finest Mickey short cartoon that was ever made was The Nifty Nineties with Fred Moore's design of Mickey. I've said this many times before but I think the best Mickeys ever done were by Fred Moore. I tried to imitate Fred but I don't think anyone could ever copy his style."

However, for most students of Disney artwork, one of Moore's greatest claims to fame was his ability to draw wonderfully innocent and graceful yet highly sexual women of all ages. This ability is reflected a bit in his work on the centaurettes in Fantasia (1940) and the teenyboppers in "All The Cats Join In" segment of Make Mine Music (1946) but is best showcased in his casual "cheesecake" drawings that were collected with fervor by his fellow Disney animators. Even today, they are still referred to as "Freddie Moore Girls."

Moore was coordinated and athletic, so his body awareness transferred to his animation, giving his characters a fluidity lacking in the animation of others. Unlike the other Disney animators who took countless classes to learn, Moore had no interest in improving or spending time doing the in-depth analysis that his peers were embracing. He was charming but not regarded as deeply educated or hard working.

"Don Graham [the Chouinard art instructor at the studio] can give you the rule, I just say it looks better," he repeatedly said to his colleagues.

Unfortunately, while Moore was a natural animator, he also had a reputation as a "functioning" alcoholic.

In Moore's day, alcoholism was regarded as a character flaw, not a disease, as it is generally regarded today. For instance, Walter Lantz had no problem with Moore's drinking, and even joked about it, while Disney Legend Frank Thomas didn't speak to Moore for many years because of what he regarded as a sign of his degeneracy.

There was certainly plenty of physical evidence to showcase Moore's drinking problem had gotten out of control, including Ward Kimball telling me he had to finish up some of Moore's animation for The Reluctant Dragon (1941) when Moore was too drunk. Moore makes a brief live-action appearance in the film.

Fred Moore did animation for the Three Little Pigs and the dwarfs in Snow White, as well as Mickey Mouse.

Kimball told me in a 1996 interview: "He'd start drinking around noon, and, by 2 p.m., he was fairly drunk and would swagger into a room asking, 'Who would like a punch in the nose?' He also had the habit of taking off his coat and tossing it onto a coat rack. One day, I stole a saw and sawed the coat rack in three places and put it back together with transparent tape. The next time he tossed his coat, the entire pole fell apart.

"Somebody complained that he was getting so drunk he couldn't finish his animation on The Reluctant Dragon so I'd come back in the evenings and finish up some scenes for him," he said.

Paul Murry, who at one time was an assistant to Moore and later went on to illustrate most of the great Mickey Mouse serial stories in Walt Disney's Comics and Stories, admired Moore, but said he got in trouble with Walt Disney himself once because of him. Moore had sent him across the street from the Disney Studios to buy some beer and bring it back, and then later return the empty bottles. Murray said that Walt was outside and just glared at him when he was returning the empty bottles but never said a word and then called Moore to his office and the beer runs suddenly stopped.

One of his Moore's last assistants, Joe Morrison, would tell the story of how Moore would come in to work at 10 a.m. completely hungover. Morrison would pour Moore a glass of Bourbon that Fred would drink out of a straw. Ten minutes later he would say "'Come on, Joe, let's go' and for the next three hours incredible animation just flowed from his hand. He then left for lunch to get another drink and wasn't seen again until the next day.

Animator Bill Justice, who collected Fred Moore artwork, told me in 1997:

"In 1938 Snow White was a huge hit. You can't believe how big it was. Walt and Roy announced that they were going to throw this huge, incredible 'thank you' party for everyone who worked for them. All costs from the rooms to food and drink and in fact whatever you wanted to order would be taken care of by Walt.

"You know at the studio there was a strict dress code in those days for employees. Men came to work in jackets and ties although they were allowed to take them off when they sat down at their drawing boards.

"So anyway for over two years all of us had been under terrible pressure, working long hour days and nights to finish Snow White. When I came in at the end of the production I still felt the stress in the studio. When we arrived at the Norconian Hotel there were pools to swim in, tennis courts, a golf course, music, and plenty of food and alcohol and something just snapped.

"An animator picked up an ink-and-paint girl and dumped her in the pool fully clothed. Followed by others jumping in and hell broke loose quickly. Swimsuits flew out the windows. There were naked swim parties, people got drunk and often were surprised by what room they were in and who they were sleeping next to when they awoke the next morning.

"Fred Moore was so drunk that he walked off one of the upper floor balconies thinking he was on the ground floor and the tops of the trees were bushes and ended up in a tree fortunately. Art Babbitt used to call it 'drunk luck'. You know he was one of my idols. I never saw Freddie Moore do a bad drawing. As a wedding gift from my wife Kim, I got a sketch of a woman's head with a hat done by Freddie.

"Walt was horrified and in shenanigans. He and his wife drove home that next morning. He never referred to that party again and if you wanted to keep your job, you didn't mention it either when you were working in the studio."

In fact, despite Moore's talent, he was let go from the Disney Studios in 1946 as a "wake up call" to straighten up and sober up. Moore spent some time doing work at the Walter Lantz Studio, but was re-hired by Disney in 1948.

Moore apparently did some freelancing outside of Disney between 1942 and 1943 for Swan Soap on a character called "Betty Lou," as well as some gag cartoons. Swan Soap sponsored a radio comedy titled "Tommy Riggs and Betty Lou" during the 1942-43 season. Betty Lou was a little girl who lived with Riggs, who was her uncle. "Betty Lou" was actually voiced by Riggs, as well.

Because of his cockiness, his unparalleled natural drawing ability and his being one of Walt Disney's favorites who got some choice assignments, including Timothy the Mouse in Dumbo (1941), there was a great deal of jealousy toward him by some of the other artists, which might account for some of the exaggerated tales about his death.

On the other hand, others at the studio were just in awe of him. Storyman Larry Clemmons once recalled, "He was such a help to other guys. Guys would come in his room and say, 'Fred, how would you do this?' Fred would say, 'Well, here!'—and he'd show them—he didn't lecture, he just did it."

Animator Marc Davis said: "Fred Moore was Disney drawing. That was the basis of what Disney stood for. It was certainly the springboard for everything that came after."

Fred Moore died in Los Angeles on November 23, 1952 at the age of 41. That incident has always been a source of some controversy with usually the story revolving around Moore being drunk and it somehow being a factor in his death.

There have been stories that, while drunk, he stumbled and bumped his head on a car and it caused internal bleeding that led to his death. Another story insists that Moore was driving drunk and swerved and hit his head on the steering wheel. Yet another claims he was so drunk that he passed out in a driveway and a car ran over him.

One older Disney animator told me, with a voice of authority, that Moore died as a homeless drunk, which is easily debunked because, at the time of his death, he was doing work on the mermaids and the Lost Boys in the film Peter Pan (1953) so he was fully employed.

Gus Jeckyl was one of Moore's assistants at Disney. According to Jeckyl, Moore was getting out of his parked car and a drunk driver sideswiped him. (Moore was sober at the time.) He was taken to the hospital, but he had no insurance or money to pay for the treatment. The doctors told him that they wanted to do more tests, but that would cost money.

They would give him the day to try to line up cash, but if he couldn't find any, they would have to discharge him the next morning. Moore and Jeckyl got on the phone and called all of Moore's old friends at Disney to ask to borrow money to help pay for his treatment, but everyone turned their back on him. Jeckyl said that one after another of his friends told him "Freddie just wants the money to get drunk again..."

The hospital finally discharged Moore when it became clear he had no way to pay his bills. He was sent home in a taxi, and died on his front doorstep with his house key in his hand from internal bleeding.

The next day, one major animator, who had refused to give Fred a dime for his hospital bill, moaned and cried loudly over the "great loss." In between sobs, he made a point of whispering to everyone, "You know of course that Freddie was drunk when he got in the accident..." It was a lie designed to make the whole thing Moore's fault, and deflect any responsibility from his "old friends" for turning their back on him.

That same animator later saved the stub of one of Moore's drawing pencils in the belief that it was magic and one day he might need the help of that magic on an assignment.

Certainly, this is a tragic story and one carrying an aura of validity because of Jeckyl's association with Moore. Unfortunately, like the dozens of other stories about Moore's demise, it isn't true. For one thing, Moore was a 839 animation union member with full health benefits and, for another, St. Joseph's would never turn out a seriously injured individual. Yet all these false stories persist because no one seems to know the true story or wished to undermine Moore's influence on Disney animation.

A few years ago, Joe Campana ferreted out the actual truth through public records and, according to those records, Moore actually died on Sunday, November 23, 1952 at 4:15 p.m., at St. Joseph Hospital in Burbank (the same hospital where Walt would die in 1966).

His death was a result of a head injury from a vehicle-on-vehicle collision the previous evening at Big Tujunga Canyon near the Angeles National Forest. Moore was not at the wheel at the time of the accident; his second wife Virginia, who was 35, was driving and sustained minor injuries that were treated at St. Joseph's Hospital.

Fred's two daughters from his first wife (also named Virginia), were Melinda and Suzanne and were not in the car. Fred died a day after the car accident from a cerebral hemorrhage caused by a concussion, as well as massive trauma to the chest.

The Moores were returning from a visit to Disney animation director Jack Kinney's house on Saturday evening November 22, 1952, to watch a college football game. Kinney had directed the "All The Cats Join In" segment on which Moore had personally animated the entire sequence from when the girl answers the telephone and then quickly showers and dresses, through to her scene putting on lipstick in front of her mirror.

In fact, Morrison confirmed that the USC-UCLA game had been played that day. The time of the accident and the location of the accident also seem to support this story. It is apparent that the Moores got disoriented while driving home and, when they attempted to turn around to head in the opposite direction, the collision occurred.

The driver of the other car, Roy Sowles, died many years ago, and attempts to locate the other passenger, Jesse Sowles (probably Sowles' son), who sustained minor injuries, have not been successful.

Morrison located a contemporary newspaper account of the accident, as well as Moore's death certificate listing the cause as "cerebral hemorrhage" and that an autopsy was performed.

In Disney history, countless errors abound, including some from the company itself. The D23 Disney Legends page lists Moore's death as November 25 not 23. Even the most careful Disney historian researcher can unwittingly share a falsehood, especially if it was about a person which is one of the reasons so many Disney biographies have some interesting flaws.

That an unremarkable but tragic car accident took the life of Fred Moore at much too young an age while he still had more to contribute is not news. The fact that it was exaggerated and inflated and that those spurious comments still are repeated today as fact is disgusting. Moore deserves much better.

He was posthumously inducted as an official Disney Legend in 1995. He had earlier received the animation industry's Winsor McCay Award in 1983. His work is still studied today and he is buried in Forest Lawn Hollywood Hills overlooking the Disney Studios.